Life of Pi, spear

As final Oscar ballots are cast--the deadline is February 19 at 5 pm--Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" has turned out to be a stronger contender (and box office juggernaut, at close to $600 million worldwide) than many had expected. Nominated for eleven Oscars, among the categories the movie is favored to win are best director, cinematography, visual effects and editing. Lee has won one Oscar to Steven Spielberg's two; they are the only two directors nominated for both the DGA and Oscar. With "Argo"'s Ben Affleck out of the director Oscar race, Lee could beat Spielberg, mainly because "Pi" has been winning more advance awards and the Taiwan-born filmmaker is so respected for his range of skills. (See Lee on Nightline below and our interview, here.)

Some weeks back I moderated a lively DGA panel with cinematographer Claudio Miranda (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), producer David Womark, VFX animator and supervisor Erik Jan De Boer, visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer (of beleaguered Rhythm & Hues) and Lee's long-time editor Tim Squyres.

Anne Thompson:  3-D was an important component on this movie. How much was 3-D was part of your work in the past and what challenges did it present here? 

'Life of Pi'
'Life of Pi'

David Womark: You're a director and you have this book to adapt that has all these complexities--water, animals, first time actor who had to lose weight to do the movie, filming in Taiwan--all these challenges.  It's been a four year journey for Ang and a two or three year journey for most of us up here.  That's what made the process so special--he generated that.  He took the risk himself.

Claudio Miranda: I shot “Tron,” so I had a little 3-D experience.  Even on that movie, we had to find out what makes good 3-D, what makes bad 3-D.  I took those rules and played around with them, and some of those rules may work for some but not all things.  I shot some test footage off the Venice pier to look at the ocean in 3-D, and you felt when you were looking at it that it wasn’t just this thing sitting on the screen.  I felt like it was water, and it was just amazing.  Even the weather, getting the storm in it--and I’ve seen this movie in 3-D and 2-D.  One expert started playing with the 3-D in the previz (previsualization), and at some point he called us all into the room.  He had lined up a shot in 3-D that was an over-shoulder of Pi in the raft, and in the background there was the lifeboat with the tiger.  He had taken Pi and the raft and pulled them a little bit out of the screen, and he turns to us in the room and goes, two for one.  We all kind of looked at each other and didn’t get exactly what he was saying.  And he said, 'well, I have an over-the-shoulder shot, but I also have a new kind of POV because Pi’s in the foreground and in focus.'  And I think Ang dealt with the 3-D in that kind of abstract way.  So a lot of the decisions that were made with the 3-D, he thought of it not just technically, but emotionally.

Tim Squyres: We decided very early on--I’d done a lot of films in 2-D but none in 3-D before--that in cutting the film, we would just do everything in 3-D.  Usually, when you edit, you’re looking at your Avid and wondering what it’s going to look like on the big screen, and you have a lot of experience doing that.  But since we’d done 3-D, we didn’t want to cut it in 3-D and imagine the 2-D.  So we cut it, from the first day of assembly, only ever working in 3-D.  In fact, our cutting room in New York, where we worked for about 10 months, we had a good size 11.5 inch screen with a good sound system, and that’s what I edited on.  We cut it thinking, this was a 3-D movie.  I didn’t even see it in 2-D--  I still don’t think I’ve ever seen it in 2D!

Bill Westenhofer: It all started when Ang came to us literally in week one and said, 'here’s the budget, there’s a digital character, will it look less real in 3-D'? And we all thought, 'that’s a great question--we have no idea.' So we went back and took a shot from the first 'Narnia' of the lion, and we rendered it in two ways.  And without improving any detail whatsoever, it actually gave more presence, it looked more real.  From the visual effects standpoint in 3-D, you have to spend a lot more time.  All the tricks you’re used to doing of shooting elements and putting splashes from generic shots, you can’t do anymore, because it has to be perfectly filmed in the right place.  You have to do a lot of things with old CGI simulations that you wouldn’t do otherwise.  Blue screens have to be perfect--if the edges are just a little off, you see this weird squishing on the sides.  So it does take a lot of extra time in 3-D.

AT: But it also takes a lot more juice, doesn't it?  Is there some "Citizen Kane" warehouse where all of this computing happens?

BW: In fact, thanks to Mr. Lee, we developed on this film something called Cave which, in Taiwan, he was filming with just that.  It's a huge render farm.  We needed that because, when our digital supervisor added up how many hours we would have needed had a single computer rendered the whole thing, it would have taken 1,683 years to do this render.  

AT: You also had some kind of global cloud?

BW: Yeah.  Cave stands for Cloud Computing for Animation in Visual Effects, and it's basically a render farm shared by our offices.  We have one in Los Angeles, two in India, one in Vancouver and another one opening in Taiwan.  We now all share those same render resources.  From a logistics standpoint, one of the hardest things is having enough computing power and air-conditioning and all that.  Having this really opens up what we can do with the computing resources.

AT: The animation on this with Richard Parker and the zebra and the orangutan are really amazing.  How many animals did you have to animate in 3-D? 

Erik Jan De Boer: It's something like 16-18 species that we animated.  I think in total we did five main hero/keyframe animals for the project.  From a 3-D point of view, if it looks good in the left eye, it also looks good in the right eye.  So besides the posing and those obvious staging issues, the 3-D wasn't really a complication for animation except for those shots where you had a lot of contact with the live-action.  So when the tiger ends up on Pi's lap, we had done a shot like that before, but the 3-D made it a lot trickier, because all those little tricks you can do don't work.

AT: Well, tell us exactly how you did that shot.

EDB: I don't know if I can say—it takes so much away from it.  I think they were shot on a dry boat in a parking lot in Taiwan against a blue screen.  And I wasn't there.  I think I was shooting live-action footage of the tigers.  

BW: What we should mention to everybody is that when they see the tiger in the movie, under 10 percent of the shots are live-action.  Eighty-four percent of the tiger is digital, 84 percent of the rain is digital, all of the orangutan.

AT: So the real tiger shots would be in the boat from a fair distance with an oar in between?

BW: The whole discussion of using a real tiger was actually thoroughly considered.  Because it does make our work more challenging.  But actually it was that very reason that we decided to push what we did with it.  Selfishly, I wanted to set the bar as high as possible so that there was no way anyone was cheating.  We pushed our artists to deliver something as green-screen as we'd ever gotten before.  And also, having a real tiger there gave us incredible access for reference, and it's that attention to detail which really made a difference in how the tiger is in the film.

DW: And it helped us in terms of efficiency, which is strange.  In our case, the fishing scene had all these references that could give Ang and the team something to work on.

CM: The other thing is, for instance, in the scene where he trains the tiger with the stick, the way we shot that was we had a general idea what was going to happen.  But first they shot the tiger—there's 10 real tiger shots in that scene.  That scene is about half real/half CG.  So we would shoot it with the real tigers, and the real tigers did stuff that we never would have anticipated.  There's that shot where the tiger's sharpening its claws on the bench.  That wasn't scripted--that's just something the tiger did.  I sat with the tiger trainer and he explained that that's a nervous tiger saying, 'see, I'm not nervous.'  That kind of behavior was very interesting, so we shot that first, planned it all, and then, three weeks later, shot it in CG.

DW: That was one of the real advantages--having a tiger trainer there.  Our trainer had worked with tigers for 30 years, and he had an insight into their thought processes and manners that we consulted him on.  A lot of details--the tiger trying to prove he's not scared, for instance--came from him.  In the shot when Pi pulls the tiger into his lap, he told us that while tigers are aggressive animals, he had an experience with one that was older and sick, and said that in that moment, on her deathbed, she craved comfort and nuzzling.

AT: This movie is one of the most beautiful movies ever made.  It's just stunningly gorgeous and beautiful.  Some of it is your cinematography, some of it is the incredible production design, some of it is done in the digital world.  Could you give me a sense of how you worked to balance and blend what you did and what the vusual effects artists did--some of the shots that came from you and were enhanced by them?

CM: In a shot like the golden shot, that has a little bit of heightened reality as far as lighting, Bill and I talked a lot.  We talked about skies and looked at pictures, and when I started the day, Ang says, 'what time is it?'  And I say, 'it's six o'clock in the morning,' and we'd talk about what time it was and how it should feel.  There's different things in the film that are very beautiful--the golden tone is very beautiful. It's also a beautiful shot because of the flatness of Richard Parker and Pi.  It's not spectacular lighting, but there's something really fantastic about how new it is.

AT: So in the scene with the pool, where you have the father swimming in the pool and it beautifully matches the sky, how did you get that shot?  It's stunning.

CM: Ang wanted to reshoot it.  [Laugher]  

AT: That's another question.  How demanding a taskmaster was Ang Lee?


When we started doing research with the book, we stumbled upon this Hitchcock movie, "Lifeboat."  And I found a documentary with Hitchcock talking about it and showed it to Ang, and it was basically Hitchcock saying,' I've got a lifeboat, black and white film, eight people--I'm fucked.' And Ang really took that to heart.  He went through it and really knew what was going on, so when we all arrived he would say, 'the wind is 22 miles an hour, it's 3:30 in the afternoon.' Ang thought through a lot of these broad strokes in previz to make sure you felt the passage of time in the journey.  He's very detailed.

AT: What wcomplicated about doing that shot?

CM: It was complicated because of the water elements.  It was hard, but it was probably harder for Bill than me.

BW: Ang wanted this crystal clear water and the feeling that he's swimming through sky.  We had a special tank built and all these filters, and we shot the thing, but it wasn't quite as clear as he wanted it.  I knew when he said he wanted him to be swimming through sky that we had to take the surface of the water and replace it with a cloudscape.

AT: So what is the most difficult, challenging visual effects problem?  Is it the ship going down, is it the thousands of flying fish, is it the whale?

BW: Technically the hardest was the tiger in the boat, and the storm with all the water work.  All of them had significant challenges--the whole ocean sequence, doing a full ocean simulation, that can take weeks to do.  From our standpoint, having fur is hard enough, having water is just as hard, and when you combine the two, the interaction makes you wonder what drives what.  The water drives what the animation can do but the water has to react to the animation and the fur reacts to that.  So it's just this round and round process.

AT: Well, Erik, talk about Richard Parker.  He's a character that you have to animate and show him reacting.  It sounds like maybe one of the most difficult things you've ever had to do.

EDB: Actually, no.  We've always been trying for photorealistic performances with our characters.  Once we have that perfectly integrated into the plane, we have to make it dance or talk and anthropomorphize that.  In this, we just had this beautiful challenge of matching this CG character to a real tiger, and keep his behavior truthfully characteristic.  It was a really fun challenge.  We could have rotoscoped this, and had the tigers perform for the camera angle, so it was pure keyframe animation.  What was really cool is that you could tell our team had a lot of experience to do this kind of work.  We had 47 animators, four teams, four supervisors in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Los Angeles.

AT: So you learned more about observing that behavior and getting that exactly right?

EDB: Right.  It was really about trying to stay as close as possible to the animal.  We would go back into the live action shot and look at what the tiger is doing in the surrounding live action shot.  We would put that into our animation and the look of our tiger to make sure we had a seamless integration.

BW: One of the trickiest things was that when you're animating something, even if you're absolutely intent on making it animalistic and real, it's hard to not subconsciously anthropomorphize things.  That's another thing where the reference really paid off.  Not only did the reference inspire us, it showed us how the tiger would respond to things.  We did try to convey some subtleties that are true to an animal.  A tiger, when he comes out and sees he's in the middle of the ocean, would be as freaked out as a person, but a tiger's going to show that in a different way from a person.  That's where you have to do a lot of study so that you're not taking the easy route and saying, 'here's how a person gets scared' and doing a tiger version of that.

DW: It was important not to anthropomorphize the tiger.  When he says, 'storm, Richard Parker,' we didn't want him to react the way a human would.  It's an animal, and we were very careful to try to keep that.  

AT: What did Ang tell you he wanted--how he would he communicate to you?

BW: He would talk about the skies and he would talk about the time of day, but quite often, the kind of description I would be handed was, 'I want an operatic sky.' So we had to interpret what operatic or melancholy or pensive means.  At the end of the day, that was one of the most rewarding parts for all of us.  Ang definitely has a vision and knows what he wants, but he takes advantage of what the rest of us can bring to the project.  The first thing he said to the visual effects crew when he got back to Taiwan and was talking about the logistics of shooting was, I want to make art with you.  That was the line that really struck home to me, and it was the theme we carried through the entire post-production process.

AT: Tim, this project has an unusual narrative with disparate threads that come together at different times.  What were you working with?

TS: Technically?  Well, we didn't shoot a single shot in the ocean, except when he's landing on the beach.  Everything else is in a wave tank.  And there's no tiger.  So right away, the first day I get the stuff, I'm cutting plates and matching, but wherever there was animation from previz, we had to have them take the animation out and give that to us on green.  So we dropped the tiger in right away, because otherwise, what are you looking at?  And we quickly, sometimes just us in editorial, put in backgrounds from our library of skies and oceans and things, so we'd put in backgrounds.  On the more complicated tracking shots, we had the company who did the previz deal with it.  By the time we screened the assembly, there were only about four shots where we could see the walls of the wave tank, and all the animals were there.  Because otherwise, you're just cutting from plates to plates and you're not telling the story.  There were a number of shots that didn't exist, because there was no photography involved at all.  There, where I had previz, I would use that.